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Low MCAS scores launch dispute over test’s value and use

Scores plummeted on a test typically used to decide graduation, school rank

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Low MCAS scores launch dispute over test’s value and use
Some say the new MCAS is a more effective way to get feedback on important student abilities. Others say tests miss much of what contributes to a quality education and that schools are punished, not helped, for low scores.

A new MCAS debuted last spring in Massachusetts schools, and student scores plunged.

MCAS scores are used in determining both students’ readiness to graduate high school and schools’ rankings. A new version of the test, referred to as the Next Generation MCAS, was administered to grades 3-8 for the first time.

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Some, like Paul Reville, professor of practice of educational policy and administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and former state secretary of education, says the latest scores suggests the new test is working. Education officials wanted a stronger assessment of student capabilities after many passed the original “legacy” MCAS only to be placed into remedial classes in college, and this next-generation MCAS seems to be holding pupils to higher standards.

“I interpret the results as an indication that the bar has been raised,” Reville said.

Others, such as Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni say the new test demonstrates that the state is entrenching itself in a flawed assessment system that focuses narrowly on English language arts and math, while ignoring more complex school quality factors, such as student risk-taking and confidence, creative thinking, transparency and responsiveness to the community.

“What we can draw from [the scores] is that the testing regime and tests-and-punishment regime is absurd,” Madeloni said. “The idea that student learning could change that dramatically [between the legacy MCAS and next-generation MCAS] exposes that the tests are not about the actual experiences that young people are having in the classroom.”

New results

According to DESE’s initial projects, half of the state’s tests takers failed to meet expectations. By the latest Boston Public Schools data, the city’s students performed below even statewide averages.

In BPS, an average of 22 percent of students scored as “not meeting expectations” in English Language Arts (compared to 10 percent of students statewide), 47 percent partially meeting expectations (versus 41 percent statewide), 28 percent met expectations (lower than the 42 percent statewide) and 3 percent exceeded expectations (versus 7 percent statewide). Student subgroups that performed below the city average for meeting or exceeding expectations — the test’s top two scoring levels — were Latinos, blacks, males, English Language learners and students with disabilities.

In math, BPS children again performed below the state average, with 24 percent not meeting expectations (compared to 12 percent statewide), 45 percent partially meeting expectations (versus 41 percent statewide), 27 percent meeting expectations (falling below the 40 percent statewide) and 4 percent exceeding expectations (compared to 8 percent statewide). Again those subgroups performing below BPS average for meeting or exceeding expectations were Latinos, blacks, males, English Language Learners or those with disabilities.

What the test says

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is using these initial scores to establish a baseline and as such is not altering school rankings due to them.

Along with Reville, others believe standardized test scores demonstrate learning and are a tool to improving it. Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said in a blog post that she is hopeful that the new test will certify to employers a work-readiness among high school graduates that the previous MCAS did not. BPS officials indicated a belief that the MCAS has been a useful improvement tool, and issued a statement celebrating a minor increase in math scores on the traditional grade 10 MCAS this year as an indicator that students gained new capability.

“We are starting to see gains from our work with high school math teachers to incorporate more cognitively-demanding tasks to better prepare our students to solve the complex and rigorous problems they will encounter in MCAS and in life,” said BPS superintendent Tommy Chang.

Meanwhile, state Senator Pat Jehlen advised reporters that the next-generation MCAS only heightens expectations on a limited slice of skills in two subject areas, and argued that focusing on tests will necessarily deplete time from other educational practices.

“Students now read less fiction,” Jehlen’s office stated in an information sheet, “They practice for many years writing five-paragraph essays; professors report students have no experience writing longer research papers. “

Madeloni says the state is perpetually moving the goal post, increasingly demanding that students move faster and faster through subject matter, something she says has little true educational value.

“Instead of getting 100s, you have to get 105s. This idea that we’re supposed to accelerate students more quickly through the curriculum is corrupt,” Madeloni said. “It has nothing to do with more meaningful learning.”

Value as an assessment

Debate over the latest MCAS score’s significance largely is a debate over how the MCAS is used. According to Reville, standardized tests are rooted in equity goals and intended to ensure schools bring all students to high capability levels. While not capturing everything desirable in education, tests have a role in “taking the temperature” of a school and identifying schools or individual students that need more support.

“If we’re only measuring in English, math and science, that’s only a piece…but it’s something. It’s a basic minimum,” Reville said.

Madeloni, however, says that while in a best-case scenario, a standardized test is used in the diagnostic manner Reville describes, in large part tests distract from real teaching. She does not believe standardized tests, including the new MCAS, truly assess engaged thinking or critical questioning and analysis of information, or address other critical factors of school climate and students’ socioemotional skills. Too often standardized test actually reflect the socioeconomic status of the test-takers, she said.

“We don’t need high-stakes testing to know where we have more students in poverty, more English Language Learner students, more students with special needs so we can go in and supply the resources that we need for those students,” Madeloni said.

Teaching to the test

Jehlen says tests such as MCAS prompt schools to cut back on music, art, civics, social studies, physical education, recess and other areas in order to dedicate time to test prep and to emphasize lessons such as calculus while leaving out practicalities such as financial literacy.

Reville acknowledged that there is a prevailing fear that tests are just forced regurgitation of memorized and quickly forgotten facts, but said that in his view, the MCAS defies such concerns by demanding creative problem solving and deeper engagement.

How to respond to scores

One line of opposition to standardized test is concern that the way the state and city respond to schools with low test scores is damaging to students, not supportive. If a school’s test scores drop far enough, the school may be subjected to turnaround, which in Boston thus far has led to mass dismissal of teachers, or state takeover.

Madeloni argued that schools are punished for their scores and test-taking practices, not assisted to overcome low scores. As an example she pointed to a school in Hull that dropped from level 1 to level 3 after three students opted out of taking the MCAS, even though the other students scored highly on six MCAS tests. Jehlen expressed similar views, citing others who have said that educators should not be held accountable to performance goals if the city and state fails to provide the school with sufficient funding.

Reville said that a test cannot be mistaken for an end goal, but rather as a tool to help indicate progress and where adjustments need to be made.

“[A test] is a tool. There are no real adverse consequences for students in the employment of this tool — grades 3-9 for example [where scores do not impact graduation],” Reville said. “It’s incumbent upon all of us to figure out how best to use this tool and not become obsessed with it, but use it as a valuable diagnostic instrument. …It’s not a strategy for improving education, it’s a measurement instrument.

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